2014 Training Camp Tour - AUG

All good things must come to an end, someone much smarter than me either said or wrote long ago, and so is the case with the 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour. My last stop was one of the best, as I spent Wednesday afternoon under an overcast Minneapolis sky watching the Augsburg College Auggies prepare for their first game - a big one on Saturday night against No. 17-ranked Wartburg.

It's been a fun and educational process, visiting each of our nine football teams and getting to visit with coaches, student-athletes, athletic trainers, sports information directors and other athletic department personnel. One constant has been the passion and excitement for the upcoming season. It's clear that everyone thinks the level of football continues to rise in the MIAC, and after what I was able to see with my own two eyes, I'd have to agree.

Below is my final "Nine-for-Nine" on Augsburg ... nine takes for each of my nine stops on the tour. There is a 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour Home Page on the MIAC site so you can re-live all the fun in anticipation of Saturday's kickoff, and I'll be doing my weekly football preview for Week 1 later today, with a wrap-up of the tour coming in feature and video form tomorrow. Hopefully, this series has satisfied your football craving as the countdown to kickoff 2014 has ticked away over the past two weeks. Thanks to everyone who checked out the videos and blogs, and I hope see you at a MIAC football game this fall!


No. 1 - Working hard
At each stop of the tour, my first question to coaches and players was, "How has camp gone this fall?" The standard answer was positive. I finally got a little different tune from star Augsburg QB Ayrton Scott when I asked him that yesterday. He told me camp was really tough and the team was really put to the test to get in the best shape possible leading up to the season. He went on to tell me that it went well and the team really responded, but reiterated how hard the team worked throughout camp. Part of that has to be how the Auggies start the season - at home under the lights Saturday night against No. 17 Wartburg. With such a big game right off the bat, it's clear the Auggies have been putting in maximum effort to get ready to go. Also, this team has been on the cusp of greatness the last few years, so the increased intensity in camp could be their push to take that last step into MIAC title and Playoff contention.

No. 2 - Starts with Scott
A major reason the Auggies have been on the cusp of greatness has been the play of Scott over his first two seasons. A starter from day one, the Augsburg QB is a two-time All-MIAC selection. As a freshman, Scott led the MIAC in rushing yards per game (143.6) and touchdown passes (26), ranked second in passing yards per game (224.5) and was third in rushing touchdowns (12). He was third in the nation in total offense with 368.1 yards per game. Last year, he threw for more yards to lead the league (276.7) and he again led the MIAC with 25 touchdown passes, but his rushing numbers dropped off due to some issues with a hamstring injury. Last year Scott ran for 647 yards and just five scores on the ground. Haege said Scott is fully healthy again and dropped 10 or 15 pounds to improve his speed and mobility, and they fully expect him to return to his lethal dual-threat status this season. The MIAC is loaded with quarterbacks this season, and Scott just may be the best of the bunch. For more on Scott, check out this great feature in the Star Tribune by Rachel Blount.

All-MIAC QB Ayrton Scott is back and hopes to return
to the dual-threat form of his freshman season.
No. 3 - Weapons aplenty
The only thing better than having a two-time All-MIAC QB under center is having more than enough weapons around him. Augsburg will again field one of the league's most impressive arrays of skill players, despite the losses of All-MIAC TE Adam Carl and Second Team RB Phil Putratz. Star WR Joey Sonnenfeld is back after a breakout season where he led the MIAC in receiving yards per game (108.7), receiving TDs (13) and averaged 15.2 yards per catch en route to All-MIAC honors. Second-Team All-MIAC RB Jerise Washington will step into a featured role in the backfield, and he'll team with Scott to give the Auggies a dangerous 1-2 punch in the run game and he's also a big asset in the passing game. Erickson Saye should also have a chance to move the chains for Augsburg and adds to the offensive depth. The team also adds Minnesota State-Mankato transfer Hunter Friesen at wideout, and Haege thinks he'll give Scott another great target and make a big impact in his first season in the MIAC.

No. 4 - Patching the holes
Despite all that weaponry back for the Augsburg offense, both Scott and Haege addressed some concerns the team is working to clean up. The Auggies were the league's most penalized team a year ago, with 65 total flags costing them 618 yards (second-most in the MIAC) throughout the season. In addition, Augsburg struggled taking care of the football, losing 13 of its 27 fumbles and Scott offset his 25 TD passes with 15 interceptions. The junior QB addressed that issue head-on, saying he needs to be more careful with the ball. This is just a guess, but that hamstring injury last season could've forced him into throwing into tighter windows, rather than taking off and running when he didn't see any open receivers, so Augsburg is hoping improved health and experience for their star will result in fewer turnovers. The team also gave up the second-most sacks in the league (19) in 2013, and expects to get better play out of the offensive line this season.

Augsburg should have one of the MIAC's
most explosive offenses in 2014.
No. 5 - Room for improvement
Though the Augsburg defense wasn't a liability last year - it ranked fifth in yards allowed (356.7 per game) and sixth in scoring (26 points per game) - Haege has higher hopes for the unit in 2014. The team lost one of its leaders in All-MIAC DB Hakeem Bourne-McFarlane, and All-MIAC LB Michael Juberian and his MIAC-leading 141 tackles are currently sidelined via a suspension to start the season, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. First-Team All-MIAC DL Chris DeVet is back after making 63 tackles, five sacks and 12 TFL a year ago, and DB Felix Coleman racked up 83 tackles, four TFL, two interceptions and his four forced fumbles tied for the league lead. The defense helped offset some of the offense's turnover woes by recovering 16 fumbles and picking off 15 passes. Haege also has some exciting new faces on defense that he thinks can help that unit improve in 2014 once they mix in with the veterans.

No. 6 - Getting more special on special teams
The kicking game was a concern for Augsburg a year ago, and even a little improvement there could be big for a team on the rise. Last year, Auggie kickers were just 3-for-6 on field goals and 30-for-42 on PATs. Those numbers will need to improve, or Haege will have to think about going for more fourth downs and two-point conversions. Punting wasn't much better, as four different Auggie punters averaged just 32.3 yards per punt with just six inside the 20. In fact, Augsburg's leading punter was - you guessed it - Ayrton Scott, who kicked it away six times for a 36.7 average. The team should again be extremely good in the return game even with All-MIAC returner Bourne-McFarlane gone to graduation. Washington, Save, Tyrell Martin and some athletic newcomers give Haege plenty of electric options in both kick and punt return formations.

No. 7 - Adding a video board, losing a legend
Even though it won't have anything to do with the team's performance on the field, Augsburg fans have a lot to be excited about with the addition of a new video scoreboard at Edor Nelson Field. The 20-feet-high by 40-feet-wide jumbotron was unveiled on August 18 during a 100th birthday celebration for the field's namesake. The glamorous addition to the Auggies stadium will enhance the game-day experience, and Haege told me those type of amenities don't hurt in recruiting either. Unfortunately, the field's namesake won't get to see it in action, as Nelson passed away last week. Expect the team to keep the Augsburg legend's memory in their hearts and minds throughout the season.

Head Coach Frank Haege addresses the
Auggies at Wednesday's practice.
No. 8 - A play or two away
Though Augsburg was 5-5 overall and 3-5 in the MIAC last season, that record isn't indicative of the product on the field. The Auggies started 3-0 and four of the five losses came by a four points or less. The team dropped a 31-28 decision at MIAC champ Bethel, suffered a 30-28 loss at Saint John's, fell to St. Thomas 17-14 at home and saw a 17-point lead evaporate in the fourth quarter in a season-ending 49-45 loss at Carleton. With Scott back - and healthy - and most of the team's top offensive weapons back in place, that experience in those near misses will go a long way in 2014. Not only will Augsburg enter each games - even against the Royals and Tommies - confident it can play with the league's elite, it will now have experience in close games against great opponents. Those factors could be big if the Auggies can put themselves in similar positions late in games again in 2014.

No. 9 - Navigating the schedule
Augsbug will open with No. 17 Wartburg Saturday night in a game that could be a big indicator of how the Auggies will fare this season. MIAC Champion Bethel dispatched of Wartburg in a close game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, so if the Auggies can open with a win, they could announce their intentions of being a top 25 team and title contender. Augsburg has an interesting schedule breakdown with the opener against Wartburg, a final game at Bethel and back-to-back games in mid-October against the MIAC's other top teams - St. Thomas and Concordia. They'll finish September hosting Gustavus, and will open November with a home game against Saint John's, which will also be crucial to the team's final spot in the standings. Basically, Augsburg should be a team to watch with seemingly big matchups on the schedule every week. If the team can get off to a hot start and build momentum over the season's first three or four weeks, it will enter its big MIAC matchups with a ton of confidence, and could find itself in the mix for the NCAA Playoffs and the conference title.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas
Aug. 31 - St. Olaf
Sept. 1 - Carleton
Sept. 2 - Hamline
Sept. 3 - Gustavus

Sept. 4 - Augsburg

2014 Training Camp Tour - GAC

The third time's the charm. I had planned to go to Gustavus for the eighth stop of the MIAC Football Training Camp Tour Saturday, but a change in practice time forced me to reschedule. Then I hoped to get there Monday, but they had another change that made it tough for me so, finally, on Tuesday I got down to St. Peter for a spirited, sharp practice on a beautiful sunny day.

The Gusties were one of the MIAC's most improved teams in 2013, finishing 6-4 overall and 4-4 in the conference for a fifth-place finish. Gustavus had won just five games total the previous two seasons, so last season's performance was a huge step in the right direction. Tuesday's practice revealed a team that is very aware of itself and eager to build on the success it had a season ago.

All good things must come to an end, and today I'll be making my ninth and final stop on the tour when I head to Augsburg to check in on the Auggies. Their blog and video will be online tomorrow, and I'll wrap it all up with a feature and compilation video on the MIAC site on Friday. In the meantime, check out all the blogs and videos on the camp tour home page, or by using the links at the bottom of the post. And here are my "Nine-for-Nine" takes - nine observations from each of the nine stops - on the Gusties.


No. 1 - Unique twists
Since it's my eighth stop, some of the practices were understandably starting to blend together, although Gustavus did several little things that seemed pretty unique that I didn't see anywhere else. The first thing was after the team wrapped up 11-on-11 scrimmaging, the offense and defense lined up and shook hands. I hadn't seen that at a football practice before, but I think it's a great reminder of good sportsmanship, and helps a team remember that even though they were just going up against one another, they're all still on the same team. The Gusties also did more conditioning at the end of practice than I had seen, which especially stood out since they were just four days from their first game. The other new wrinkles all came on defense, where defenders picked up every single loose ball, which I'll cover in depth later in the blog, and when they weren't hitting the linemen and linebackers were all trying to knock the ball loose, so turnovers appear to be an emphasis for the Gustie D. Also in the unique category? Gustavus was the first team that practiced while the entire theme from Star Wars blared over the speakers.

No. 2 - Rebuilding the run
A year ago, Gustavus was built around the running game. Now, they'll need to rebuild. Gone is star RB Jeffrey Dubose and four of the starters on the offensive line. Dubose scored 25 touchdowns last season and led the MIAC in points scored (150) with 30 more than anyone else in the league. He was second in the league in rushing by a single yard with 1,459, and his average of 5.5 yards per carry ranked No. 2 in the MIAC as well. He was an All-Region (First Team) and All-American (Honorable Mention) selection and graduated with school records in rushing yards (3,419) and rushing touchdowns (41). In addition, All-MIAC First Team linemen David Gschneidner and Lyle Opdahl were also among the four starting OL to depart. Those are some really big shoes to fill. How Gustavus rebuilds its run game and restores its identity will be a huge storyline in 2014.

QB Mitch Hendricks is back to lead the Gustie offense.
No. 3 - Going up-tempo
Part of the answer to how the Gustavus offense will replace those missing pieces could be partly addressed by the scheme. Though Dubose and most of the line graduated, starting QB Mitch Hendricks is back after throwing for nearly 2,000 yards last season with a good 61.2 completion percentage that ranked third in the league. Two of his top targets from a year ago - Matt Boyce and George Buchner - are also back, and the Gusties are excited about their speed and athleticism on offense. Expect to see this team air it out more in 2014, and pick up the tempo as they adapt to fit the strengths of their personnel.

No. 4 - Reloading the defense
Gustavus was also hit pretty hard with losses on the defensive side of the ball, but the team feels good about the returning talent coming back and thinks it can be just as good - if not better - on defense this season thanks to its team approach. All-MIAC First Team DL Donte Green and ILB Joe Haas and Second Team DB Torey Asao all graduated, and First Team DB Zach Dilger suffered an injury and won't play in 2014. However, Second Team OLB Anthony Boyce is back after making 37 tackles and several big plays a season ago, as is senior defensive end Cameron Cropsey and his team-leading 13 TFL and 59 total tackles. The team also returns its third- and fourth-leading tacklers in DB Jake Forcier and LB Matt Keller. Rather than rebuild, the Gustie defense could be in position to reload. Last year's unit ranked fourth in scoring and third in yardage in the MIAC, and a similar performance would be a big catalyst to more success.

No. 5 - Speed kills
The Gusties are feeling so good about their chances on defense thanks to their team speed, and their commitment to get as many guys to the ball as possible. Forcier told me that their motto is, "Gusties swarm," and they pride themselves in being fast to the ball and working as a unit. As I mentioned in No. 1, the Gustie defense literally leaves no loose ball uncovered during drills, be it an incomplete pass, fumble, or even just an offense player dropping the ball after the whistle. The Gusties have been coached to flock to any loose ball they see and treat it as a chance to return it to the house. The Gusties were second in the MIAC with 16 interceptions last season, but dead last with six fumble recoveries, so this approach is Not only are they hoping this will help the team create takeaways and be prepared to be opportunistic when a loose ball emerges, but it also helps foster the team-first mindset of getting everyone to the ball. This approach could certainly lead to a few scoop-and-scores this season, but the bigger picture could be the way it fosters intensity and teamwork on the Gustavus defense. clearly an effort to increase those numbers.

The Gustavus defense wants to play fast and physical.
No. 6 - 'Committed to the process'
With last season's improvement to 6-4, Coach Haugen and his squad saw their plan working the way they envisioned, and he told me it's important they stay the course and keep working on the things they've implemented and trusted to get them this far. He said it was important that, regardless of last year's results, the program stays, "committed to the process," and continue building on the tenets that have gotten them to this point. Lineman Zach Vine and Forcier both talked about the work the team did in the offseason, and how they felt that work was evident from the first snap of fall camp, so it appears the whole squad is committed and all pulling in the same direction.

No. 7 - Keeping it close
Last season, Gustavus was no stranger to close games, as half of their 10 games were decided by eight points or less. The team suffered narrow losses to Augsburg (19-16) and nearly beat two of the MIAC's elite teams, losing 20-12 to St. Thomas 38-31 to Concordia in the season's final game. However, they also won a couple close ones too, beating Simpson 28-21 to open the season and scoring a 23-20 double-overtime win over Saint John's. That experience in those barn burners - especially for a returning QB like Hendricks - will be big in 2014. If Gustavus can keep it close into the fourth quarter, it will have plenty of experience playing in big spots, and a couple more wins in those scenarios could mean contending for a MIAC title. Forcier told me the theme of camp has been: "Finish strong," so the team knows how important it will be to play its best in the biggest moments.

No. 8 - Seeking a "signature" win
Along the lines of No. 7, Gustavus came extremely close to knocking off ranked opponents in St. Thomas and Concordia a year ago. To take that next step, the Gusties will focus on beating the other teams joining them in the middle of the pack - Saint John's, Augsburg and Carleton - and trying to knock off the likes of the Cobbers, Tommies or even defending champion Bethel. If they can beat one - or more - of those teams it would serve as a signature, and potentially even season-defining, win, and could be what propels Gustavus to the next level.

No. 9 - Build momentum
The Gusties open at home against Crown, then hit the road to face Lake Forest and open MIAC play against Hamline. That should give Gustavus a chance to start the season strong. If the Gusties play well from the get-go, they have a chance to potentially start with anywhere from four to six wins in their first six games, and game No. 7 will be against Saint John's - a team Gustavus beat a year ago. Lots of wins and lots of confidence will be crucial for the Gusties, as their final three games are all against the MIAC's top three teams from a year ago, with the final two on the road. Gustavus ends with Bethel at home, then on the road at Concordia and St. Thomas. That's a brutal final stretch, but if the Gusties build momentum over the season's opening weeks, there could be a ton on the line for those big late-season showdowns.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas
Aug. 31 - St. Olaf
Sept. 1 - Carleton
Sept. 2 - Hamline
Sept. 3 - Gustavus

2014 Training Camp Tour - HU

Some last-minute changes to practice schedules altered my Labor Day plans, and instead of heading to St. Peter to hang out with the Gusties, I enjoyed a shorter trip to St. Paul and fought the final-day State Fair traffic to get a look at the Hamline University Pipers in their second camp under Head Coach Chad Rogosheske. It was a great day, and my first look at a team transitioning from "camp mode" to preparations for their first game.

Hamline showed glimpses of promise last season that hadn't been evident in previous seasons. My visit to Monday's practice revealed an optimistic group and a very efficient practice, with a mix of drill and fundamental work and big-picture team sessions. Rogosheske returns some of his best players from a year ago, and it's logical to expect the Pipers to continue to improve.

The MIAC Training Camp Tour is winding to a close with just two stops remaining. Today I'll be heading to Gustavus (following a hectic afternoon with our first Athlete-of-the-Week releases for 2014-15) and I'll wrap up the tour tomorrow with a visit to Augsburg. It's been an exciting week-and-a-half visiting each of the MIAC's teams, and I'm confident it will end with a couple of high notes. At each stop, I'm doing "Nine-for-Nine" ... nine items of interest for each of the nine stops on the tour. Hamline's "Nine-for-Nine" and accompanying video are below, and a full archive of the tour can be found at the bottom of the post.


No. 1 - Getting familiar
When I spoke to Rogosheske after Monday's practice, he talked about the differences in camp this year now that it's his second year on the job. Players know what to expect from a practice and preparation standpoint, and they can spend more time on the details and fine tuning than a year ago, when everyone was learning a new system and style. The Pipers' practice was remarkable upbeat and efficient. It appeared all players were engaged at all times, whether during the positional drill work which focused on fundamentals, or during the team sessions. Intensity was high for 7-on-7 and full team scrimmages, with both the offense and defense trying to gain an edge. After visiting the Pipers a year ago during Rogosheske's rookie year, it certainly seemed every part of practice ran like a well-oiled machine, and there was evidence of continued progress.

Hamline RB Austin Duncan is back after
leading the MIAC in rushing yards in 2013.
No. 2 - All Duncan, all the time
A year ago, Sophomore RB Austin Duncan emerged as one of the league's breakout stars. His 1,460 yards led the MIAC by a single yard over Gustavus' Jeffrey Dubose, and his 319 carries led the league buy a wide margin. For all those carries, Duncan held up incredibly well and only fumbled once all season. His virtuoso performance came in a 298-yard masterpiece in an overtime loss to Carleton, and he was named All-MIAC and Third Team All-Region. Duncan's season included new Hamline records for single-season and single-game rushing yards. Rogosheske praised Duncan's talent and his durability, so expect him to get a ton of touches again this season. He looked great in practice Monday and another huge season seems like a certainty for the Pipers' star RB.

No. 3 - Leading the way
Leading the way for Duncan and all those carries and yards is a stout, veteran offensive line. Senior Alec Grimm was named one of the team's captains, and he'll move to center this year to help direct traffic and make the right calls for a team that had the No. 2 rushing attack in the MIAC in 2013. Hamline racked up 2,049 yards with a good average of 4.2 yards per carry, and a lot of the credit goes to Grimm and his teammates along the line. Look for them to have another great year as Hamline tries to pound the rock and control the clock.

Hamline hopes for more passing production.
No. 4 - Improve through the air
While the rushing game is already one of the league's best, Rogosheske didn't mince words while discussing the need for more offense through the air. Hamline ranked dead last in passing in the MIAC in 2013 with just 122.2 yards per game and 4.8 yards per attempt. Part of the problem was health, as junior starter Tim Bona missed a pair of games, and three different QBs saw significant snaps under center. This year, Bona is entering the season healthy and a newly minted captain, and hopes are high for him in his second season, especially with defenses stacked to stop Duncan and the running game. Look for Hamline to incorporate some quick-strike plays on the edge to establish rhythm and find cracks in those stacked defenses. Rogosheske is high on senior WR Hoyfal Adam, who he said has had a great camp and offseason and could help jump-start that passing attack, and leading receiver Naji El-ARaby is back after a solid rookie campaign. The Pipers return nearly all their significant pass catchers from a season ago, so experience could breed results as well.

No. 5 - Tackling machine
A season ago, DB Anthony Hill racked up 109 total tackles to rank fourth in the MIAC despite playing in just nine games after missing the opener. The tackling machine had an average of 12.1 stops per game, which ranked second in the league and he added three tackles for a loss, an interception and eight pass breakups. Hill will again be the leader of the Piper secondary - if not the defense as a whole - and brings a hard-nosed presence to the Hamline defensive backfield. The hope at Hamline is that he won't have to hit the century mark again, because that would mean more plays made in front of him and fewer snaps for the opposing offense, but regardless of how the number shake out, his play will be a key to Hamline's defensive hopes again in 2014.

No. 6 - Experience on defense
HIll isn't the only key defender back on defense, as Hamline only graduated only a few key members of last season's squad. Senior captain Corey Touchette is back after 37 tackles, four sacks and five TFL a year ago, and his play at a hybrid rush end/drop linebacker spot will be a key to the unit's success. DL Matt Wildes returns after a team-high 9.5 TFL and second-best 46 tackles a season ago and, in all, Hamline's top four tacklers and eight of the top nine are all back as the unit looks to improve and give its ball-control offense more chances to be on the field. A year ago, Hamline generated just 15 turnovers (four interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries) so creating takeaways will be another emphasis for the team this season. To end 2013, the Pipers allowed just 20 points to Saint John's and seven to Macalester, so Rogosheske hopes that's a trend that will continue.

No. 7 - Kicking consistency
A year ago, Hamline had a chance to start 2-0, but missed field goals late in regulation and again in overtime were costly in a 20-17 OT loss to Carleton. The team also came close in a 20-14 loss to Saint John's and a 7-0 loss to Macalester. Rogosheske acknowledged the role special teams played in those close calls and said the team needed more consistency in the kicking game in 2014. The Pipers were just 2-for-6 on FGs and 16-for-19 on PATs last season, and the punters averaged just 30.2 yards per punt, so if the team can show improvement in those areas, it could make a big difference in close games this season.

Piper camp has gone well under second-year
Head Coach Chad Rogsheske.
No. 8 - Numbers are up
Hamline returned 52 players from last season's squad, and both started and finished camp with 78 players on the roster. Rogosheske said the improved numbers made a big difference throughout training camp, as the team could employ more units and keep the foot on the gas pedal a little more, where a season ago they had to really gauge when the guys were getting burned out and needed off-days or lighter workloads. The team is still working on building depth and hoping to avoid injuries in key spots, but the amount of returners and a big, promising crop of freshmen have the roster in much better shape than it's been in recent years.

No. 9 - Rebuilding is working
Prior to Rogosheske's arrival, Hamline had gone 1-9, 0-10 and 1-9 in the previous three seasons. His 2-8 (1-7 MIAC) team matched that win total in his first season, and it was clear the Piper alum was a good fit for the program, and the team was willing to put in the necessary work on the rebuilding project. This season, the team hopes to be successful against nonconference foes UM-Morris and Macalester again, and after beating St. Olaf and narrowly losing to Carleton and Saint John's in 2013, the team is hopeful for a few more MIAC victories as well. It wouldn't be shocking - if Duncan, Hill and other key players stay healthy and productive - to see the Pipers double their win total again and move towards the middle of the pack in the MIAC. The team has a good recipe for success with its running game and returners on defense, and its improved depth and familiarity with Rogosheske's system are both bonuses as well. The 2014 squad should elicit the most optimism Hamline fans have had this decade.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas
Aug. 31 - St. Olaf
Sept. 1 - Carleton
Sept. 2 - Hamline

2014 Training Camp Tour - CAR

In all the previous stops on the 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour, I had stopped by a practice or workout. My stop at Carleton on Friday afternoon was much different, because I actually got to see the Knights going head-to-head against a different opponent. The team was hosting a scrimmage against UW-River Falls, so it was fun to get my first "real" look at MIAC football with officials, an opponent, down markers and a running clock.

The Knights have been a team on the rise, finishing with a .500 record last season. Though there are some key spots on offense that need to be filled, the team is optimistic about continuing that ascension in 2014. I'm doing nine observations from each of the nine MIAC training camps, and my "9-for-9" from Carleton is listed below.

Carleton was my sixth stop on the tour, leaving just Hamline, Gustavus and Augsburg left on my list. I had some slight changes to my schedule, and will be visiting Hamline this afternoon, Gustavus Tuesday and wrapping the tour Wednesday at Augsburg. I also have created a landing page on the MIAC site so all the blogs and videos from the tour can be found in one spot. Links to each blog can be found at the bottom of this post.


No. 1 - Trending up
Carleton's current senior class began their college careers with a 2-8 record. They improved to 3-7 in 2012 and took another big step last season, going 5-5 overall and 3-5 in the MIAC. Now in the third season under head coach Bob Pagel, who was the interim head coach in 2012 and received the permanent position in 2013, the Knights hope the progress continues. If they could keep upping their win total and get to 6-4 in 2014, or even 7-3, it would be considered a huge success. Keep an eye on the team's progress under Pagel.

No. 2 - Searching for skill
The Knights graduated all six starters in their skill positions on offense from a year ago, including QB Conor Lynch  and his 2,122 passing yards and WR Anthony Kemper and his 982 receiving yards and nine TDs. However, the cupboard is far from empty. Sophomore RB Chris Madden flashed serious potential as a rookie, and could be poised to be one of the conference's breakout offensive stars with more touches in 2014. The versatile back caught 36 passes and racked up 797 all-purpose yards a year ago. New starting QB Zach Creighton also took some snaps as a freshman in 2013 and should team with Madden to give the Knights an offense nucleus to excite fans for years to come.

No. 3 - Offense set up front
As the new skill players adjust, they'll have the luxury of an experienced and talented offensive line, which should feature several seniors. Hopefully, the veteran line will keep Creighton clean in the passing game, and open up holes for Madden and the other backs. Leading the way is senior Eric Wittenburg, who could be poised for an All-MIAC type season as Carleton's leader up front.

Carleton has high hopes for its
veteran defense in 2014.
No. 4 - Defensive depth
For all the new faces on offense, the defense will be stacked with veterans who have put up great numbers and performances. Four of Carleton's top five tacklers are back from a year ago, and other talented players are coming back after injuries. For a team on the rise, a strong returning defense is a great asset, especially considering some of the potent offenses the Knights will face in the MIAC. Mason Schnarr was a breakout star at LB with 113 tackles, 3.5 TFL and seven pass breakups as a freshman, and he'll look to continue the strong start to his career in 2014. Senior DBs Daniel Cook (81 tackles, three INTs) and Alex Polk (80 tackles, six breakups) should give the Knights a strong secondary, and Mitch Heflin and Zach Heinrich join Schnarr at linebacker to give Carleton one of the best returning LB corps in the MIAC. If the team can get some production out of the defensive line - the one defensive unit hit by graduation - the sky's the limit for the Carleton defense in 2014.

No. 5 - Promising rookies
After the scrimmage with UW-River Falls, I spoke to Heinrich and Pagel and they both spoke excitedly about the incoming freshmen class, and it's clear many are expected to contribute right away. Heinrich, a senior leader, said the team has really embraced the new crop of rookies and integrated them into the team with open arms, so if some of the talented newcomers can step in and make an impact, it will make the future - and even the present - incredibly bright for the Knights.

No. 6 - Staying healthy
The other thing both Pagel and Heinrich said is that they don't have a very large team in terms of numbers in 2014. That will make health essential. Without a ton of depth, a few key injuries could really derail the Knights' hopes this season. Staying healthy and doing everything they can to develop some depth with their smaller roster will be a key to Carleton's success.

Carleton hopes for more succes
in the red zone in 2014.
No. 7 - Capitalizing on chances
A year ago, Carleton maxmized its opportunities, which is evidenced by a pair of key stats. Despite ranking sixth in the MIAC in offensive yardage, the Knights had the third-best scoring offense in the league. To compliment that, Carleton was the No. 2 team in the MIAC in the red zone, scoring on 83 percent (30-of-36) of its trips inside the 20. Even better, the Knights led the MIAC with touchdowns on 75 percent of its trips to the red zone, meaning the team was the best in the league at finishing drives. If that trend can continue and Carleton's offense can continue its opportunistic nature, it will both put pressure on opponents and give that veteran defense some much needed rest on the sidelines.

No. 8 - Comeback kids
In Carleton's three conference wins in 2013, the Knights came from behind all three times, including twice in dramatic fashion. The team trailed rival St. Olaf 21-7 in the first quarter and 24-21 in the second before rallying for a 42-37 shootout win. The Knights were down 17 late in the game against Hamline, but a Madden TD tied it up, and Carleton won it with a field goal in OT. Most incredibly, Carleton trailed Augsburg by 17, 45-28, with just over seven minutes left, and rallied for an improbable 49-45 victory in its final game of the season. Those thrilling comeback wins should give Carleton confidence it can come back from any deficit, or make big plays with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. Those victories show a team that has learned how to win, and they hope to have more opportunities to apply those lessons in 2014.

No. 9 - The next step     
Carleton's wins over an improved Hamline squad, rival St. Olaf and a very good Augsburg team certainly were cause for celebration on the Knights' campus. However, to keep progressing, Carleton will be looking for a signature win against one (or more) of the league's upper echelon teams. A year ago, the Knights lost to Concordia by just eight points (35-27) and just 10 to Saint John's (23-13). This year, if the Knights can use their late-game magic in a few games against teams near the top of the standings, finishing above .500 and taking that next big step towards contention becomes a reality. Keep an eye on Carleton during their biggest MIAC matchups to see if the team can continue climbing in the conference standings.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas
Aug. 31 - St. Olaf
Sept. 1 - Carleton

2014 Training Camp Tour - STO

The 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour is more than halfway complete with today's blog post and video. Friday took me to Northfield, where I checked in with St. Olaf during a morning practice that revealed a team focused on fundamentals, details, and the mental side of the game. It was a great morning with the Oles, who are hoping to put last season's 1-9 record in the rear-view mirror.

Friday also took me across town to Carleton, where the Knights were holding a scrimmage against UW-River Falls. Expect that blog and video tomorrow (Monday). I'll head to Gustavus to catch up with a Gustie team that hopes to continue their ascent on Monday afternoon, and hope to visit Hamline and Augsburg Tuesday or Wednesday. Check out all the previous stops on the tour with the links at the bottom of this post.

At each stop of the tour, I'm doing "Nine-for-Nine" - nine items of interest from each of the nine teams in the MIAC. With no further adieu, here's your "Nine-for-Nine" for the St. Olaf Oles.


No. 1 - Onward and upward
St. Olaf was one of the MIAC's biggest surprises last season, but not necessarily in a good way. The Oles - who were coming off a 7-3 season - went 1-9 overall and 0-8 in the conference in the first season under head coach Craig Stern. The team's record was a bit deceiving, as four of the team's nine losses were by seven points or less. But this year, the Oles are hoping to reverse their fortunes in those close games and begin ascending back to where they were just a few seasons ago.

No. 2 - Finish strong
The Oles lost a 20-13 game at Luther, nearly upset Concordia 33-29, fell to Hamline 31-28 and were upended 42-37 by rival Carleton in those four one-score losses. Each of those games was decided in the final seven minutes. QB Nate Penz told me one of the big focuses heading into 2014 was really focusing on playing hard for four quarters. The Oles certainly had bright spots last season, and the team's offense certainly performed better than 1-9, but by paying attention to how the team performs in crunch time, the Oles could flip some of those close results and, in turn, drastically improve their record with a few big plays at the right time.
The Oles are excited to have 2nd Tm All-MIAC
QB Nate Penz back under center.

No. 3 - Experience where it counts
The 2014 Oles won't be a particularly deep or experienced bunch, but the return of Penz and some key offense weapons means the team has veteran leadership at important spots. As a sophomore, Penz earned All-MIAC Second Team honors after throwing for 2,480 yards and 17 TDs - both numbers ranked third in the league. He said he feels more comfortable in his second season as a starter, and the whole team will have an improved comfort level in the second season under Stern.

No. 4 - Replacing playmakers
St. Olaf graduated a pair of amazing wideouts a year ago, as Stephen Asp and Jake Schmiesing both exhausted their eligibility after All-Conference careers. However, Stern is confident that the Oles have players ready to step into the spotlight. Joel Reinhardt was 11th in the MIAC with 497 yards a season ago, with three TDs and 32 catches and a very good 15.5 yards-per-catch average. Stern said Reinhardt is more than qualified to step into the No. 1 role and be the go-to guy in the passing game. Connor McCormick also returns after leading the team with 473 rushing yards again, and Stern is extremely high on Troy Peterson, a versatile freshman from Edina, that will add some excitement and athleticism to the Oles' offseason game plan.

No. 5 - Areas for improvement
While the Ole passing attack was one of the best in the MIAC, the team has some serious room for improvement in the rushing game and on defense. The St. Olaf defense ranked second-to-last in both points and yards allowed a year ago and struggled to generate sacks and turnovers. The Oles are excited about the defensive front they'll return, and hope to make a few more big plays in 2014. The team also hopes for a little more balance on offense, with McCormick back at RB and some other athletic options to kick-start the running game.

No. 6 - Defensive leaders
Despite the team's struggles on defense, Stern really likes the leadership he's seeing on that side of the ball. Colin Brown (DL) and Chad Wagner (DE) are both team captains and will lead the Ole defense in 2014. Brown had 13.5 tackles-for-a-loss and 1.5 sacks a year ago, and he has 24.5 tackles-for-a-loss in his career and is poised for a breakout season. Wagner had 33 tackles and a pair of sacks last season, but Stern said he finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and has really worked hard on improving his play in 2014. Stern is also excited about a young, talented crop of defensive backs and thinks they'll be a big key to the team's defensive hopes this season.
The Oles are hoping to improve the running game
and defensive numbers in 2014.

No. 7 - Kicking confidence
Ole specialist Eric Tusa had a strong freshman season as the team's kicker and punter giving St. Olaf reason to be optimistic about special teams in 2014. Tusa scored 32 points on four field goals (4-of-7) and was a near perfect 20-for-21 performance on PATs. His long of 45 was the second-best mark in the MIAC last season. He also ranked third among punters who qualified for the leaderboard in the MIAC with an average of 33.2 yards per punt and a long of 52 yards. His abilities can help the Oles in the red zone, and in the field-position battle.

No. 8 - Coaching camaraderie
Stern told me the biggest benefit of his second season has been his staff. He is really pleased with the group he's assembled, and said he really feels the entire unit is in tune with one another and on the same page. In year two, he doesn't feel the need to micro-manage all aspects of the program, and that's made for a fun and productive training camp. A fine-tuned staff can get the team all focused behind the same message, while also delivering more individual and positional attention to benefit each and every guy. Stern thinks he's got that in year two, and we'll see if it results in a step forward for the Oles.

No. 9 - Mental focus
One thing that was evident at St. Olaf camp - both through Stern's words and the team's actions during practice - was the emphasis on being mentally tough. The Ole coaches are stressing the mental side of the game, and how mental toughness will help the team persevere through those difficult moments that they encountered in so many close games a year ago. Training camp is typically a time for teams to work themselves into peak physical condition, but the Oles are also spending as much energy sharpening their minds. After four losses by a single score a year ago, they're banking on improved thought process - and the elimination of costly mental mistakes - will make a big difference this season. That emphasis on learning and thinking appeared to be really taking hold with the teams, so it will be interesting to monitor as the team looks for improvement in 2014.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas
Aug. 31 - St. Olaf

2014 Training Camp Tour - UST

In most places, 8-2 would be a heck of a season. But in the Glenn Caruso era, St. Thomas has become much more than most places. The Tommies had a string of three-straight MIAC championships snapped, and a team that reached the NCAA Division III national championship game a year earlier found itself at home at Playoff time. This year, UST fully intends to return to the top of the MIAC standings and back to the postseason, and spirits were certainly high - almost as high as the energy level - when I visited them on Wednesday.

The MIAC Training Camp Tour will pause for a couple days so I can get caught up on the videos and blogs from the six stops I've already made, and will resume Monday at Gustavus, with Augsburg and Hamline to follow. (Catch up on all the previous stops with links at the bottom of this post.) The Tommies were my fourth stop, and their "Nine-for-Nine" - nine observations about each of the nine teams on the tour - can be found below. After only a few minutes on the Tommie sidelines, I was ready to put on a helmet and go hit someone ... that's how infections the attitude was.


No. 1 - Two plays from a four-peat
As I mentioned, the Tommies had a  remarkable run of success in the MIAC snapped by their two losses a year ago. In each of the previous three seasons, Caruso's crew ran the table in the regular season, and advanced deep in the NCAA Playoffs. For this team, 8-2 felt a long way from 10-0, but in reality, the team was just two plays away from going undefeated again. The Tommies' game-winning field goal attempt sailed wide at the buzzer in a stunning loss to rival Saint John's, and UST was stopped just short of the goal line on the final play of the game in a narrow loss to eventual champ Bethel. Football is always described as a game of inches, and in St. Thomas' case only about a dozen feet stood between them and another perfect season. When you look at it that way, the Tommies didn't fall quite as far from grace as perception may suggest.

No. 2 - Getting healthy (and experienced) under center
As a sophomore starter, QB Matt O'Connell played beyond his years to guide St. Thomas to the conference title and the national championship game. The expectation that 2012 was just the beginning for the burgeoning young star. However, he spent most of the 2013 on the sidelines with an injury. He's back and healthy in 2014, ready to return to his 2012 form. If O'Connell can play as well as he did as a sophomore - or even better - St. Thomas will find itself back in the driver's seat in the MIAC, and back in the Division III Top 10. However, Caruso told me that O'Connell's injury a year ago allowed them to build depth at the most important position on the field, so if the injury bug bites again, St. Thomas will be better prepared this time around.

The Tommie defense practices its team
approach to tackling last week.
No. 3 - That Tommie defense
Throughout Caruso's tenure, St. Thomas has certainly featured some explosive offensive units, but the Tommie defense has really carried the team's banner. Last season featured another tremendous defense that led the MIAC in points allowed (14.3 per game), yards (261.6), passing yards (189.4), rushing yards (an amazing 77.9 per game) and sacks (28). Senior defensive back Sean Hamlin talked to me about the team's defensive philosophy of getting all 11 guys to the ball and playing sound as unit on every play, and the numbers certainly support that the team continues to do exactly that. For all those gaudy defensive numbers, no Tommie ranked in the top 30 in the MIAC in tackles. That says two things - the defense wasn't on the field much and, when they were, they were all making plays as a unit.

No. 4 - Replacements on the edge
That tremendous Tommie defense lost four First Team All-Conference seniors from a year ago - starting with a dynamic duo on the edge. Outside linebackers Tremayne Williams and Harry Pitera were among the MIAC's top defenders. Defensive lineman Riley Dombek and defensive back Josh Carey also graduated after great careers. However, as Hamlin suggested, the Tommies will continue to play as a unit, and Caruso assured me that have some experienced veterans ready to step into expanded roles in 2014.

No. 5 - Playmakers abound
In addition to the return of O'Connell, the Tommie offense is absolutely loaded, both up front with the return of All-MIAC Second Team OL Ulice Payne, and at the skill positions. RB Jack Kaiser was also a second-team All-MIAC pick last year, and he looks poised for a breakout season as a junior. He was extremely impressive against the Tommies' first-team defense ... that same defense that allowed just 77.9 yards per game a year ago. Promising RB Brenton Braddock, who also has big-game experience, is also back, and Caruso said this could be his best and deepest crop of receivers, led by senior Dan Ferrazzzo. The Tommie defense looked impressive in scrimmages while I was there, but the offense did flash its big-play ability on several occasions. Going against that defense every day in practice will only make it more formidable.

No. 6 - Kicking and punting
The Tommies return one All-MIAC specialist, but will have to replace another. Superb punter and First Team All-MIAC selection Garrett Maloney has graduated, so Caruso will need to find a new leg to help UST in the field position battle. However, junior kicker Paul Graupner is back after earning All-MIAC Second Team honors last season, and he looked good during an extensive field-goal portion of the practice I attended. St. Thomas even practices field goals at a breakneck pace, to help simulate the team rushing out onto the field late in the game with the play clock running down.

St. Thomas looked good during a high-energy,
detail-oriented practice last week.
No. 7 - Details, details
During its three-year run of MIAC titles, St. Thomas almost always was on the right side of the turnover battle, and was one of the league's least penalized teams. Last season, UST finished minus-seven in turnovers, which still seems odd to see in the stats almost a year later. Also, the Tommies committed the second-most penalties in the league - 64 - for the third-most penalty yardage - 596 - in 2014. With how close the two losses were, it's hard not to look at those numbers and wonder what might have been had those two stats looked a little different. Expect St. Thomas to focus on playing clean, turnover-free football in 2014.

No. 8 - High energy
None of the six practices I've visited so far featured the excitement and energy that I saw at St. Thomas. The Tommies sprint from drill-to-drill, and the enthusiasm was palpable on a warm but perfect August afternoon. The team practices a ton of game situations and pays close attention to details on special teams, and they continually mix up the units in scrimmages - ones versus twos, threes versus ones, etc. - to keep giving their players a variety of looks and experiences. No matter what the drill, players were performing at a high level and clearly having fun. Almost every coach talks about his team, "enjoying the process," but never was it more evident than it was in Tommie-ville.

No. 9 - Focused on effort, rather than results
I went into Tommie camp expected the team to have a chip on its shoulder after last year's near-misses and 8-2 record, but I found a team that had totally bought into the mindset its coaching staff was preaching. Both Caruso and Hamlin told me that they focus more on their effort and the way they prepare than the results, because they truly believe if they take care of their business the way they need to, the results will come, regardless if that's 10-0 or 8-2. Caruso told me that he didn't think his team needed to "refocus" because at no point had their focus ever wavered. The consistent message made me believe what they both were saying, and admire the program's ability to get everyone on the absolute same page.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas

2014 Training Camp Tour - CON

The 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour treks on with the longest trip of the nine. Tuesday I ventured up to Moorhead for a twilight practice at Concordia College and checked on a veteran, talented Cobber team that has high hopes for the 2014 season. Some rain at the start of practice cleared up and the Moorhead sky was a perfect backdrop for an impressive twilight session. Special shoutout to Cobber SID Jim Cella for showing up with an umbrella to keep my video camera and camera dry while the rain was falling.

This was the third stop on my trip through all nine MIAC football teams. My visits to Bethel and Saint John's have already been featured here, and I followed Concordia with a visit to St. Thomas on Wednesday. That video and blog should be online Saturday. Friday, I visited both Northfield schools - St. Olaf and Carleton - and plan to head to Gustavus Monday afternoon, and then will hit Augsburg and Hamline early next week as well. Stay tuned to the MIAC Media Blog and YouTube Channel as the Training Camp Tour takes you up to kickoff on Sept. 6. 

Back to the subject at hand. I'm filing a blog post with nine items of interest from each of the nine training camps, so here's your 9-for-9 on the Cobbers. Enjoy, and Fear the Ear!


No. 1 - So close
The Cobbers have clearly been one of the top three teams in the MIAC in recent years, but have come up just short of a conference title or NCAA Playoff bid. Concordia has gone 8-2 overall and 6-2 in the MIAC to finished tied for second place in each of the last two seasons. This year's team looks poised for more success, but the hunger for even more was palpable at Cobber camp. In fact, my visit to Concordia in 2014 reminded me a lot of my visit to Bethel in 2013 and it looked to me like I was seeing a team ready to take that final step to the top of the mountain.

No. 2 - Pass the ball...
In the NFL, two types of elite players get paid more than anyone else - players who pass the ball, and players who rush the passer. If that translates to the Division III college level, Concordia has to feel pretty good about the assets it has back. Senior QB Griffin Neal is back for his third year as a starter, and in my six training camp stops, his passing performance was hands-down the best I've seen. Pass after pass hit his intended target perfectly in stride, and he has the combination of experience and physical gifts to write an incredible final chapter to an already-great career.

No. 3 - Rush the passer
On the other side of the ball, Senior DE Nate Adams is back after winning the 2013 MIAC Mike Stam Award as the conference's best lineman - on either side of the ball. His nine sacks were three more than anyone in the MIAC and his 17.5 tackles-for-a-loss were five more than the next-best total. With Adams making it difficult for other QBs to breathe and Neal back under center, Concordia is set at two pretty important positions.

The Cobbers hope for lots of big plays like this
one in the passing game in 2014.
No. 4 - Top target (hopefully) back
Last year, Brandon Zylstra joined his QB on the All-MIAC First Team, and his athletic displays at wideout and on special teams were among the best in the league. He was featured multiple times in the MIAC Play-of-the-Week contest and had 41 catches for 774 yards and seven receiving TDs. He suffered an injury this summer and hasn't been in pads yet, but the Cobbers are hopeful he's close to returning to the field. If he comes back 100 percent, Concordia has an explosive weapon back on the edge and in the return game and he could improve on those impressive stats from a year ago.

No. 5 - Searching for more smash mouth
With a QB like Neal, it's natural to gravitate towards a game plan with the ball in his hands, but traditionally the Cobbers have featured more of a smash-mouth run game on offense, so it was odd to see Concordia's top backs all the way down at No. 15 and 16 on the MIAC rushing leaderboard. Neal actually led the team and ranked 11th in the MIAC with 496 yards and eight TDs on the ground, but this season a storyline in Moorhead will be whether a reliable every-down back can help balance out the offense and increase its potency.

No. 6 - New faces on defense
While Adams is back to lead the Cobber defense, the unit lost some key players to graduation and will lean on some new players to fill in for some major production. Corner Kenyon O'Brien and LB Tyler Berling are gone after All-MIAC careers, and O'Brien was an Honorable Mention All-American a season ago. The Cobber defense was fifth in the league in scoring and sixth in yards allowed, and will hope to move back into the upper echelon in those categories in 2014 to balance out its high-powered offense.

No. 7 -Cobber kicking game
Concordia will certainly benefit from having reliable All-MIAC kicker Ben Wagner back in 2013. The senior set a school record with 78 consecutive PATs that split the upright, and he's 85-for-86 on PATs each of the last two seasons. However, All-Conference punter Brett Harmelink has graduated, so Concordia will be auditioning a replacement with the hopes that the kicking game can still be a huge strength in all facets.

Concordia hopes to take another step forward
after finished second in 2012 and 2013.
No. 8 - Festive atmosphere
Last year, most of the teams I visited were blasting music throughout practice to help the players stay energetic and engaged and to supply a simulation of the noise they'll face on the road on game days. This year, practices I visited had been much quieter ... until I got to Moorhead. Music blared and the coaches and players were in high spirits. When the team went 7-on-7 or full squad, the offense and defense clearly wanted to get the best of one another. The team wasn't in full pads, but the energy was cranked up to 11.

No. 9 - Limit mistakes and play hard
When I spoke to Head Coach Terry Horan and Adams at practice, both stressed that the team needed to limit mistakes and stay sharp for all 60 minutes to take that next step into the Playoffs or first place in the MIAC. Thanks to an NCAA-allowed foreign tour last spring, the Cobbers enjoyed practice and exhibitions and feel that helped them heading into this fall's camp. Because it didn't take as long to get up to speed, they're focused on those details that can seem small, but can actually make a big difference between winning and losing. And for a Concordia team with tons of star power back, those details could again be the difference between a trip to the Playoffs, or Thanksgiving at home.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia

2014 Training Camp Tour - SJU

After opening the MIAC Football Training Camp Tour Monday with a blog and video from Bethel's first practice, MIAC Media hit the road Tuesday to visit Saint John's and Concordia, and Wednesday brought a shorter drive to St. Thomas. Today's blog and video are from the tour's second stop at Saint John's, as I checked in with the Johnnies during a picture-perfect afternoon session in Collegeville. Since we'll be visiting nine camps in all, I'm providing nine observations on each team as I make my rounds throughout the MIAC. 

My 9-for-9 takes on the Johnnies are below, as is a video from their practice.
Friday I'll be visiting both Northfield schools - both St. Olaf and Carleton - and will be at Gustavus Monday afternoon. Next week, I'll finish the tour at Augsburg and Hamline as camps wind to a close. Expect the Concordia recap and video on Friday, and St. Thomas to follow this weekend.


No. 1 - Smooth transition
Everyone had their eyes on the Johnnies in 2013 as they entered the season under a coach other than John Gagliardi for the first time in nearly 70 years. After going 5-5 in 2012, the team improved by two games and beat arch rival St. Thomas, and it's safe to say the first year of the Gary Fasching era was a success with a 7-3 record. Now that Fasching enters year two as the head man and that year of transition is in the rear-view mirror, it will be interesting to see how his coaching style shapes the program moving forward. However, it was fitting that college football's all-time wins leader, while no longer coaching, was watching over practice from his suite high above the stands while the program he built still observed may of the traditions (most famously, no hitting in practice) that turned the Johnnies into a national powerhouse.

No. 2 - Johnnie Magic
It's easy to say that SJU improved by two wins on a pair of field goals ... a last-second make in the season opener to beat UW-River Falls, 17-14, and a last-second miss by the Tommies to give the Johnnies a 20-18 win in their rivalry showdown in St. Paul. SJU also scored a two-point win over Augsburg, and a six-point win over Hamline in 2013. The red-and-white faithful were quick to say that Johnnie magic was back, and the team certainly performed admirably in the closing minutes of both games. Those last-second wins can fuel confidence, and if SJU is in a tight spot this season, they know they've prevailed in those circumstances before.

No. 3 - New look offense
Offensive coordinator Kurt Ramler is off to a head coaching position with St. Scholastica, so that means offensive duties will return to the hands of Jim Gagliardi, and any new wrinkles that fans noticed a year ago may have headed for Duluth with Ramler. It will be interesting to observe how the offense adjusts going back under Gagliardi's care, but in Collegeville, that name will certainly go a long way.

Josh Bungum hauls in a one-handed
catch during Tuesday's practice.
No. 4 - Keep throwing
Don't let his 5-9 stature fool you - wide receiver Josh Bungum can ball. The All-MIAC Second Team pick at WR set a new school record for receptions by a sophomore in 2013 with 84 catches, and he's already got 126 grabs in his career. He had 790 receiving yards as well, and he'll be a focal point of the Johnnie offense again in 2014. Oh, and that sophomore receiving record he broke? The previous best was 72 catches by a guy name Blake Elliott in 2001.

No. 5 - Keep kicking
Bungum wasn't the only Johnnie to write his name in the history books in 2013. Kicker Alexi Johnson burst onto the scene with 11 field goals - the most ever by a rookie SJU kicker. His mark also tied the overall school record. The sophomore will need just five more field goals to become the Johnnies' career leader. Not only is his leg a weapon in the red zone, he also proved to be clutch with his 40-yard game winner with two seconds left to beat UWRF, and his kicks were huge in a three-point win over UW-Eau Claire, a two-point win over the Tommies, a two-point win over Augsburg and a six-point win over Hamline.

No. 6 - Special front seven
The Johnnies showed big improvement on defense last year, as they allowed just 17.6 points per game to rank third in the MIAC, and their 336.0 yards allowed per game ranked fourth in the conference. Expect that unit to continue to improve in 2014, led by a pair of key returners in the front seven. All-MIAC LB Andrew Rose is back along with his 85 tackles and nine tackles-for-a-loss, and Matt Workman returns to the defensive line after racking up 10.5 TFL and five sacks a year ago.

No. 7 - Rookie contributions
Fasching and his staff are extremely happy with their incoming freshmen class, which includes numerous Minnesota state all-stars. However, they also went outside the region to find some speed and athleticism at the skill positions, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see a handful of freshmen step in and contribute from the first snap. Keep an eye on SJU's newcomers ... how quickly they adapt to the college game could be the key to the team taking that next step back into title contention.

The SJU coaches do a great job keeping
all 191 players involved in practice.
No. 8 - Keeping 191 involved
Attending practice at Saint John's is quite a sight, with 191 players on the roster as of my visit on Tuesday. Kudos to the coaches for keeping that many players interested an engaged. It's really something to see a passing drill with three sets of five quarterbacks each throwing to almost an endless crop of receivers, while the rest of the positions break out to work on fundamentals all around them on the perimeter of the field. My stop in SJU in 2013 came on freshman orientation day, so I didn't see the full squad in action. It was a sight to see. On the flip side, it's crazy to be in Clemens stadium where the only attendees are the players. I'm used to seeing 6,000 or 7,000 red-and-white clad fans filling the stadium, so it was certainly a unique perspective to see the place outside of game day.

No. 9 - Measured progress
Progress is usually measured by wins and losses, but this year Saint John's could take a significant step forward and see the same numbers in the standings. The Johnnies play two WIAC schools - River Falls and Eau Claire again - in the nonconference season and will have extremely tough tests against St. Thomas, Bethel and Concordia, and don't forget that the Johnnies were beaten by Gustavus in 2013. It's possible that SJU could take a big step forward in Fasching's second season, but a 7-3 or 6-4 record could still be the result based on the schedule. Fans will need to look beyond the record and use their eyes to gauge the progress in 2014. How did the Johnnies play against the Tommies, Cobbers and Royals? Did they roll against a pair of UW schools? Augsburg and Gustavus are hoping for a similar step forward, so those games will be key as well. Johnnie fans continually have championship aspirations, and the team could certainly contend for - or even win - the MIAC title in 2014, but Fasching told me the two-game jump from 7-3 to 9-1 is a lot bigger than the one the team made last year, so it makes a lot of sense to judge this team not only by results, but also by the game day product.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's